It turns out Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is filmable after all—and maybe even a bit more than that. Director Ava DuVernay, working from a screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, hasn’t cracked the infamously weird young-adult novel wide open with her Disney adaptation, but she has found a way in, while also managing at least a few sequences that evoke the book’s wild, wonderful imagination.
The “way in,” for DuVernay and company, is to go personal. Rather than unspooling a cosmic allegory for spiritual struggle, this Wrinkle traces a smaller story: that of an abandoned girl’s journey toward self-acceptance. Four years after the mysterious disappearance of her scientist father, for which she largely blames him, 14-year-old Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is visited by three strange women with unusual powers. They claim her father had discovered a form of time travel, and that she must follow in his footsteps to find him. Along with her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and a friend from school (Levi Miller), Meg embarks on a journey through time and space, to other planets and beyond, where she must learn to conquer her own fears about being a nerdy girl with glasses if she is to rescue her father (Chris Pine, quite good in a few key scenes).
Some of this is drawn extremely broadly, even for a children’s film. Like so many kids’ flicks, the school bullies here are cartoonish villains, berating Meg simply for having a missing parent. But once that journey gets underway—led by Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey, amusingly the size of Godzilla at one point)—the film finds surer footing. And Reid, as Meg, is solid throughout, tapping into both her character’s insecurity and her anger.
The film’s most effective imagery is that which ties directly into Meg’s psyche. If a ride on the back of Mrs. Whatsit, after she has transformed into some sort of enormous leaf creature, is underwhelming, it’s both because of the unconvincing special effects and because it has little to do with Meg’s inner state. Far better is the scene in which Meg, trapped in a strange white room, finds her way out by putting on a special pair of glasses that allow her to see the other dimensions at work in the space, like blueprints. Climbing stairs that don’t appear on the screen, she’s enacting what her father tells her in the flashback that opens the movie: “Love is always there, even if you don’t feel it.”
The film’s most effective imagery is that which ties directly into Meg’s psyche.
Similarly evocative is a climactic moment in which Meg once again “tessers”—or travels through time and space—but this time in a different way. Previous trips have been painful and frightening, captured in quick, claustrophobic images of Meg’s face covered by a fabric in dark space. But here we see her entire body floating slowly through an amber expanse, as ribbons of light caress her limbs, seemingly handing her off from one ribbon to the next.
I won’t spoil what makes this a different trip for Meg, except to say that it involves a choice she must make between loving herself and fearing what others think of her. You can sense the Oprah influence in this theme of self-actualization. And while that may be reductive in comparison to the novel, it’s also in the tradition of other science-fiction enterprises (Solaris, Interstellar, the recent Annihilation) in which the cosmic intertwines with the personal. A Wrinkle in Time is more of a mixed bag, like the latter two films, than a masterpiece, like Solaris, yet I find it hard to fault a children’s film for attempting something so ambitious.